Tuesday, June 29, 2010

SK Solidarity Trip Finakpo': Final Thoughts on My Solidarity Trip

I’ve been back in Guam now for more than a week since my South Korea trip. I’ll still be back-posting for the new few weeks as there is still so much more to say and blog about. Remember that you can easily access the posts for certain days of my trip by clicking on the appropriate tag.
Day 1: Seoul
Day 2: Pyeongtaek
Day 3: Gangjeong
Day 4: Seoul
Day 5: Mugeon-ri

As I think back on my trip I met so many fantastic people and heard so many tragic and inspiring stories. But when I was thinking back on what part of the trip stayed with me the most, or what is sort of that haunting excess, that sticks out and determines far more meaning now than it probably did then, one exchange constantly pops into my mind. It could be so many things: the beauty of Jeju, and the tinaiprisu of the fight of the villagers of Gangjeong, the tragic marks on the soul and skin of political prisoners, the way a people struggle with the division of their nation and its past history of colonization (and current history of militarization). The way in which people would take that division and that colonization and start a passion or a fire, an iron will of dedication, in either the direction of peace and reunification or of war and domination.

Interestingly enough, the thing which stayed with me most was an exchange that took place on the fourth day of the trip. That evening we had held a meeting with different peace and progressive activists in Seoul, learning from them as well as informing them about what the current situation is in the United States, Guam and Okinawa. Afterwards, one of the organizers of the meeting Mr. Kim Young-Je, Director of the Reunification Unit of the Korean Confederation of the Trade Unions, invited us all to dinner nearby. The conversation, like most during the trip was difficult since most people did not speak very much English and our delegation spoke absolutely no Korean. Our translator Sung-Hee was by that point exhausted from traveling from Jeju to Seoul earlier that day and then translating for several hours some very intense conversation. Although everyone at the meeting was to the Left or at least the center Left of most issues there were disagreements about things and so some of that emerged in the course of the meeting and the dinner afterwards.

For example, Bruce Gagnon, the delegate from the US and the coordinator for the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space had asked the activists at the meeting whether or not anti-capitalism philosophy or practice was represented in the activities of their groups. This led to a lot of discussion which sadly most of which was not translated, but I was told the gist of which was, that no, and some people questioned whether it was even possible to do such a thing, or whether it was advisable to seek to change such a fundamental condition of contemporary existence.

At the dinner another sort of bone of contention, a difficult topic was broached, again with much of the discussion going through Sung Hee for translating or simply remaining untranslated in a circle of English or Korean language. As I wrote about earlier, the sinking of the South Korean ship the Cheonan in March is something which has made the lives of nearly all the people I met that day either difficult or impossible. Since many of them work on reunification activities, they have found their work threatened or stopped by the South Korean government. Mr. Kim, our host for dinner, wanted to ask Bruce, in more or less terms, how the people of the United States could be so stupid to believe what the South Korean government had said, blaming the incident on North Korea. He then went on to say, more or less, that what good was solidarity, or rather was it even possible to have solidarity when the United States was the source of so many problems in the world, but was populated with people too stupid to see through such obvious Gulf of Tonkin-type-lies.

Bruce agreed with Mr. Kim to some extent, but also countered that what was needed was for more solidarity work from within communities such as South Korea. He said, that everyone he knows, who is critical or progressive minded in the US is working on twenty different things, and that getting to everything and fighting every fight is impossible. He asked Mr. Kim as well as others present to help him get the word out, by increasing the amount of information that they sent out on their projects or struggles in the English language. He noted that almost everything he knows or has shared with others about militarization and South Korea comes from Sung Hee’s No Bases Korea blog.

More arguing was made on both sides, with different people, including myself joining in. Eventually the point which really struck me was when Mr. Kim made an argument which I had heard others touch lightly upon in both South Korea and elsewhere, but which crystallized some thoughts in my head about my trip. He said that people in the United States should see the connection between peace (gi este na mundo (todu i tano' siha)) and the Korean peninsula. He said, that people in the United States should see that peace on this peninsula means peace in Asia which means peace in the world. He said, that if you can “solve” this problem of the two Koreans, if you can reunify them, then you can diffuse the situation and weaken the superpowers who are playing very dangerous games with this place as the battleground.

When I heard this, I immediately though back to Thomas Friedman’s thesis from The World is Flat. Changes in technology, markets, governments have all led to this idea that the world is less divided than it used to be and that things move in easier ways than ever before. The result is that the world has therefore a feeling of being flat, smooth, where people, capital, finished goods, raw materials, media all move in smooth and seamless ways. That these changes, has resulted in the flattening of the world and created the conditions of globalization as we know it. Friedman’s thesis is a positive one, since as he sees it, countries small and large all have equal access to this world, since it has no hills and valleys which only the strong or the large might be able to surpass. Since it is flat, anyone can make use of this globalized world.

As so many people have already pointed out, Friedman’s thesis is puru ha’ take’ or take’ toru. For a small group of people and corporations in the world today, the world is very flat. One class of people who enjoy this flatness are known as “flexible citizens.” This system known as globalization makes it very easy for them to move, be cosmopolitan and live hybrid global lives and then to make money off of the existing inequalities in the world order. For everyone else, it may feel flatter in some ways, such as when I was in Seoul I was watching Fox and E! Network, but at the same time the system is very much set against certain bodies crossing certain borders, certain economies developing in ways which reduce the profits for those at the top of the world order, and so on.

But when I was at that dinner with the Seoul activists I didn’t directly think about Friedman’s argument, but more so that notion that he built it upon, where the world has become flattened, where playing fields have become level where a wide range or diverse number of things become equal.

In a sense, when myself or any other privileged 1st world subject looks at the world, it is very easy to see it as flat, even in terms of oppression or domination, or the violence which is exported in order to keep the prosperity or comfort of the first world and its related territories. The world is full of so much suffering and problems, large and small forms of violence, it is very easy to see it all as just one massive, never-ending flat expense. That there is so much, in so many places, that it appears flat, like no one can actually be more important than another, that they either all have to be dealt with at the same time or none at all, or a little bit here and there and nothing more. The flatness of the world leads to paradoxically feelings of convenience (it is easier to “support” causes than it ever was before, there are plenty of aid networks which are ready and willing to take money or take a signature) but also feelings of powerlessness and apathy (since there is simply too much and no matter what you do you can’t make a dent, there is always some other tragedy next door).

But as I said, the appearance of the world being flat or flatter is just what I said it is, an appearance. Just as the economies of the world may be more intertwined than ever before, this does not mean they are equal or fairer. The same goes for injustice and the fight for peace or against militarization and war. Not all struggles are equal and so there are places on this planet, where the machinery or the possibility of war build up even higher. We can argue about where, we can base our arguments on which places have more bases, which have more weapons, which are fighting against each other, or even which have more water or other natural resources or raw materials. But all of these things indicate that the map of the world for those seeking peace is not flat at all, but tends to build up and create massive mountains in some areas. If you gauge militarization by outright war, than you most likely see the most important mountain to bring down in the Middle East. If you see this map differently as one of bases and projection of power, then maybe you’d want to focus on small almost invisible bases in Central Asia or Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. If you see, peace as an issue of empowering smaller countries to resist neo-colonialism and to reject the pathetic ways in which globalization brings them to the table (as cheap labor and cheap raw materials), then you might see the main battlegrounds in Latin America or Africa. Finally, if you see this map in terms of the next big war and potential clash between titans, then you might see the Eastern coast of China, Taiwan, Okinawa, South and North Korea, and to a lesser extent Guam as the key mountain to be toppled.

The point however is that whatever stance you take, there is not really an entire world to contend with, but rather a set of strategic choices. Some will appear to be easier than others, but one of the most obvious lessons which history should teach us is that the difficulty, ease, possibility or impossibility of something happening has very little to do with whether or not something happens. And so we should never limit ourselves by which fights seem easiest or which fights seem most impossible. US forces never imagined that the Chinese could fight them off in the Korean War, the US military did not imagine for decades that it could lose the Vietnam War, US military planners might have assumed they’d have bases in the Philippines for the next thousand years, and similarly enough they might have assumed that moving troops from Okinawa to Guam would have been the easiest thing in the world. Hassuyi, este i sekretun i manakhilo’ siha: maseha na lugåt ni’ nai i mas ti ikak’on hao, gaige guihi i mabuenå-mu lokkue’. Gof posipble yan ti posipble sumisha todu tiempo, kalang i dos na måta gi un sentenemos.

To continue with the map, cartographical and mountain and valley metaphors, when we look at the Asia-Pacific region we can see a huge set of mountains, an entire range of peaks. The variables involved make some easier to scale than others, but in the mind of Mr. Kim, the highest of all was on the Korean peninsula. And that if you took care of other peaks, if you were to for instance get rid of US bases in Japan or in Guam, it would be significant, but it wouldn’t revolutionize the region, it would not destabilize and cause to shattered and crack these terrain as in the movie 2012. So while Mr. Kim recognized that other places have roles in the struggle or problems of their own, he was arguing that getting US bases out of South Korea and reunifying the Korean peninsula is something that would benefit the entire area, not just South and North Korea. Its ripples would be far greater than if simply Guam was liberated or Okinawa was finally released from the yoke of its bases.

Although I have heard so many people, from so many different regions each assert a particular cause (usually their particular cause) as having the same Achilles’ Heel quality, in terms of the Asia-Pacifc region, I would have to agree with him. If the Korean peninsula could be demilitarized and reunified it would mean not only a huge victory for them but for the struggle for peace, dialogue and demilitarization around the world. The Korean peninsula is one of those hotspots which threatens in the near future to trigger a global nuclear war, or at least a regional nuclear war. It is a place where the US is rapidly militarizing in the hopes of not just securing the peninsula, but also gaining an advantage against China, boxing it in and containing it, as well as gaining perfect strike positions for targets deeper in the Asian continent. To lose that place, that conflict and those drawn sides, from which so much of the American argument for its status as a global policeman is culled from, would be incredible. It would be a huge blow. As it is now, China and North Korea as signifiers for hatred, enemies, targets for war and threats, are the means through which a President, a Defense Contractor, a slew of war hawks or anyone else needs to justify more militarism, more money for military project and more massive missile or military projects on the land of poor farmers in other countries.

Although I would admit to this assessment that the Korean problem is the biggest problem, the one which represents the most danger and the most hope if it can be resolved, it also shows the need for larger solidarity. Throughout my trip in South Korea, when speaking to various activists working for peace or working against the expansion of US or South Korean military projects in their communities, I felt myself constantly reminding people that even if we don’t feel connected to each other, we very much are. Even if myself, the people of Guam and the people of Gangjeong or Pyeongtaek don’t see ourselves as part of the same imagined community, our lands and the strategic value they represent are imagined together. Planners, analysts, Admirals, Presidents, Joint Chiefs, they imagine all our lands and the lands of millions of others as either pieces on their chessboard, or the very chessboard upon which they play their war games.

So as I said more than once, the reason for solidarity, the reason to imagine ourselves as being connected, is first, because we really are already connected, and second, because that way we can see the larger picture of things, and know how in this battle of peace against militarism, the victory of one can easily be the tragedy of another. When people protest in Okinawa or South Korea about how they don’t want US bases there, Guam is always discussed sometimes seriously sometimes in a fantastical way, as being the solution to everyone’s problems. As the compromise which can make just about everyone (including the people of Guam) happy. Solidarity is crucial for those whose commitment to an activist project or to progressive, peace orientated or demilitarized politics as not solely being about my comfort, my land or my betterment only. It is that which widens our gaze, so we can engage in larger struggles for justice, peace and decolonization and not simply export or transfer violence or oppression from one unwitting and helpless place to another.

I can I see myself as having a significant role in helping make this clear to those on Guam and as many as I can reach in the world. To disrupt the usual way in which Guam is imagined, a tiny, dependent piece of the United States, which has nothing other than a shattered culture with an island full of people ready to give it up at a moment’s notice to become more American. To not only travel to places like South Korea to share Guam’s story of past and continuing colonization, but also to do my best on the internet and elsewhere in ensuring that the stories that give Guam meaning out there for the rest of the world, do not revive the same old nasty colonial tropes, that they do not reproduce those limiting ideas of Guam as tiny, meaningless, except when the United States needs it to project power. But instead Guam be given a more progressive, a more critical and more peace-infused tale, through which it is no longer simply the solution to the problems of militaries in the US and Asia, and no longer just the tip of America’s spear, but a battlefield for peace (like Jeju an island of peace), a site which rather than pushing and escalating the world towards more war and more violence, can help stall that trend and reverse it.

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